Jessye Norman, international opera star, dies aged 74

The Grammy award-winning soprano gained worldwide fame for her roles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera

Jessye Norman, the soprano who brought a sumptuous, shimmering voice to a broad range of roles at opera houses around the world, died on Monday in New York. She was 74. The cause was septic shock and multiple organ failure following complications of a spinal cord injury she suffered in 2015, according to a statement by her family.

Norman, who also found acclaim as a recitalist and on the concert stage, was one of the most decorated of singers from the United States. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received some of the most prestigious accolades in the US such as the Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

In a career that began in the late-1960s, Norman sang the title role in Verdi's Aida, Wagner's heroines, characters in Janacek, Poulenc, Bartok and Strauss operas, and Cassandre in Les Troyens by Berlioz, in which she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1983. She went on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met. Its general manager, Peter Gelb, on Monday called her "one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage."

A keen interpreter as well as a magnificent singer, Norman had a distinctly opulent tone that sounded effortless, never pushed. It was especially suited to Wagner and Strauss. In a review of a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of the New York Times likened her voice to a "grand mansion of sound." "It defines an extraordinary space," he wrote. "It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse."


As an African-American, she credited other great black singers with paving the way for her, naming Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price, among others, in a 1983 interview with the New York Times. "They have made it possible for me to say, 'I will sing French opera,'" she said, "or, 'I will sing German opera,' instead of being told, 'You will sing Porgy and Bess.' Look, it's unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn't exist. It does! It's one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice."

A new production of Porgy and Bess is now playing at the Met; the house said it was dedicating Monday night’s performance to Norman. In her 2014 memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, she recounted meeting instances of racism. “Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?” she said in 2014. Norman was born into a musical family on September 15th, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia, growing up there in a segregated but close-knit world. Her mother, Janie King Norman, was an amateur pianist; her father, Silas Norman Sr., was an insurance broker. Jessye especially enjoyed visiting her maternal grandparents, fascinated by one particular piece of furniture.

“My grandparents were the only people I ever knew who had one – a grand pedal organ, or more accurately, a harmonium – right there in their house,” she wrote in her memoir. “It lived over in the corner of the front room, and I remember thinking that it was the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life. As far as I can recall, we were never stopped from playing it, nor admonished for disturbing the adults.”

She began listening to opera on the radio as a child. “I remember thinking that opera stories were not very different from other stories: a boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they cannot be together for some reason, and most of the time it does not end happily ever after,” she wrote. “For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already.”

She earned a bachelor's degree in music from Howard University and studied at the University of Michigan and Peabody Institute. Her career received its first big boost when she won a first-place prize at the Munich International Music Competition in 1968. The next year, she made her debut on an opera stage at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in Wagner's Tannhäuser, as Elisabeth.

It was not until 1983 that she made a belated Met debut, opening the company’s centennial season singing the role of Cassandre in a starry revival of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. By all accounts she stole the show, winning over “Monday night’s audience and Tuesday morning’s critics,” as the New York Times reported in its account of her “triumph.”

She rose early the next day to appear on television. "The only person in my family who couldn't come on Monday was my mother, who is ill and at home in Georgia," she said at the time. "I wanted to give her a look at me." Her imposing stage presence and large, voluptuous voice made her ideal for certain parts. When she sang the title character of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, one of her defining roles, John Rockwell described her as "one of our most musicianly singers" and added: "She has just the right voice for this role: a smoothly knit-together soprano that reaches up from plummy contralto notes to a powerful fullness on top."

In a sign of her international stature, Norman was tapped to sing La Marseillaise in Paris on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day – which she did, in dramatic fashion, at the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde before an array of world leaders, wearing a grand tricolor gown designed by Azzedine Alaïa. She also sang at the second inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

She became a major recording artist at the dawn of the compact disc era, leaving a rich catalogue of opera, lieder, spirituals and recitals. One of her most acclaimed recordings was a classic account of Strauss' Four Last Songs, backed by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. "Her generous heart, dignified manner and noble voice seem ideally suited to Strauss's valedictory utterances," Gramophone wrote in its review. – New York Times